"I hope that when the world comes to an end," Donnie Darko says, "I can breathe a sigh of relief." You have to feel for the guy. As played by Jake Gyllenhaal, he's way off his meds.
He stalks the corridors of his high school with the scowl of a serial killer (and the reputation of a serial arsonist, which he is). He's borderline schizophrenic; he's smart ("intimidating," is what the teachers say); but he's obsessed with time travel and worm holes.
And then his psychiatrist (Katharine Ross) uses hypnosis to discover truly alarming news: At night, when he sleeps, Donnie is visited by a large demonic bunny who gives him bulletins from the future.
It doesn't look good.
That is, I think it doesn't.
Donnie Darko is set in the late '80s for no apparent reason, and the world will end on Oct. 30, 1988, according to the rabbit with insect eyes. But whether it does when the movie is over, I couldn't really say. The first thing we see is Donnie's bedroom, where the engine fuselage of a jetliner has crashed through the roof; the last thing we see is the same event but the outcome seems to be different. FBI agents arrive and explain that no jet was flying over the house at the time. Which, yeah, is odd, but doesn't explain the big evil bunny or why translucent worms keep oscillating out of everyone's stomach.
Let's back up.
There are movies so entrancing and certifiably insane and unclassifiable all at once that they don't come around very often - and when they do, we don't tend to think much of them. Not at first anyway. The upcoming I Heart Huckabees from David O. Russell (which opens in Toledo Oct. 22) is heroically nuts and obtuse and doomed, and Russell might want to take some assurance from Richard Kelly's Donnie Darko. It arrived in theaters (three years ago this month), and it was executed, and now strangely, it's landed an 11th-hour reprieve from its fans.
Last summer, citing the enormous cult that sprang up around Donnie, Newmarket re-released it as an extended director's cut. That reissued edition opens today at the Cla-Zel Theater in Bowling Green, where the manager tells me that since school started, not a day passes without a student wandering in and asking when the restored edition of Donnie will be playing - perhaps at midnight?
Donnie Darko is a terrific midnight movie (even if it doesn't play at midnight), and the leading characteristic of a good midnight movie is that it should pleasantly confound its audience. Maybe The Rocky Horror Picture Show has run its course and audiences of college students long to dress as giant rabbits. Or more likely, Donnie Darko captures a turn-of-the-millennium mood of suburban angst the way The Graduate captured the generation gap in the late 1960s - with open-ended questions and few answers. What does it all mean? I haven't a clue, but there are Internet chat rooms obsessed with finding out and a growing stack of letters on my desk from young readers who think they've "solved" the film.
When I met writer-director Richard Kelly at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2001, he was there with Donnie Darko and nursing the film's mixed (but definitely intrigued) critical reaction. He described his vision as something like Philip K. Dick meets Holden Caufield, the restless young narrator of Catcher in the Rye, which sounds about right. It was about whatever I thought it was about, he said. I said it's about imaginary friends (the evil bunny) and alienated youth and dreams, and he smiled. Boy, he was annoying.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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